Inventors of Cochlear Implant Win 2015 Fritz J. and Dolores H. Russ Prize


Wed, January 07, 2015

Washington, DC, January 07, 2015 —

The National Academy of Engineering announced today that the 2015 Fritz J. and Dolores H. Russ Prize will be given to Blake S. Wilson, Graeme M. Clark, Erwin Hochmair, Ingeborg J. Hochmair-Desoyer, and Michael M. Merzenich “for engineering cochlear implants that enable the deaf to hear.” The $500,000 biennial award recognizes a bioengineering achievement that significantly improves the human condition.

The Russ Prize will be presented at a gala dinner event in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 24, 2015, along with the Charles Stark Draper Prize for Engineering.

“This year’s Russ Prize recipients personify how engineering transforms the health and happiness of people across the globe,” said NAE President C.D. Mote Jr. “The creators of the cochlear implant have improved remarkably the lives of people everywhere who are hearing impaired.”

Cochlear implants (CI) are small electronic devices that provide people with severe-to-profound sensorineural hearing loss, with a sense of sound. CIs comprise two parts: an externally worn audio processor, which picks up sound and codes it into signals, transmitted to the small, surgically implanted internal component. An electrode attached to the implant directly simulates the auditory nerve and sends the signal to the brain where it is interpreted as sound. The CI is the most-used neural prosthesis developed to date; more than 320,000 hearing-impaired people have received CIs in one or both ears.

Michael M. Merzenich, a neuroscientist and professor of otolaryngology at the University of California at San Francisco (UCSF), established some of the neurophysiological underpinnings of present CI designs in 1971. Best known for his ground-breaking discoveries in multisite stimulation of CIs and neuroplasticity, Merzenich, along with other CI contributors, paved the way to the Advanced Bionics cochlear prosthesis, which enabled greater access to and commercialization of CIs.

Electrical engineers Erwin Hochmair and Ingeborg J. Hochmair-Desoyer began their work on CIs as a team in the mid-1970s. Building on existing knowledge of the physiology of the auditory system, their truly engineering based approach led to the world’s first microelectronic multichannel CI, considered to be the prototype of modern CIs. The first two devices were implanted in December of 1977 and in March of 1978. Open speech understanding without lip reading via a small body worn audio processor was achieved in 1980. The Hochmairs went on to found the hearing implant company MED-EL and have continued to bring cutting-edge hearing implant technologies to deaf and severely hearing impaired people of all ages for the past 25 years.

At the same time, physician Graeme Clark was independently studying multisite stimulation of the cochlea through the “place coding” phenomenon, which routed particular speech sounds to different parts of the cochlea. Clark was focused on designing an implant that would sit flawlessly against the cochlea to correctly stimulate nerve endings. He perfected his design in 1978, and not long after, his CI was implanted into a patient. This enabled Clark to discover how to select the best speech information for deaf adults and children, and later, in 1989, how bilateral implants could assist hearing speech in noise. Clark helped create Cochlear Limited, which has provided implants to more than 250,000 patients over the last 30 years. He is also a laureate professor emeritus of otolaryngology at the University of Melbourne.

Blake S. Wilson, adjunct professor at Duke University’s departments of surgery, biomedical engineering, and electrical and computer engineering, and also a co-director of the Duke Hearing Center, began his fulltime work on CIs in the 1980s when he developed the “continuous interleaved sampling” system. This model made it possible for CI recipients to understand words and sentences with far greater clarity than before. Wilson’s breakthrough provided the basis for sound-processing strategies used widely in today’s CIs and resulted in a rapid expansion in the number of deaf and nearly deaf persons who have received a cochlear implant in one or both ears.

The Russ Prize was established in 1999 with a multimillion dollar gift to Ohio University by alumnus and esteemed engineer Fritz Russ and his wife, Dolores. Awarded biennially, the prize recognizes bioengineering achievements worldwide that are in widespread use and have improved the human condition.

Founded in 1964, the U.S. National Academy of Engineering is a private, independent, nonprofit institution that provides engineering leadership in service to the nation. The mission of the National Academy of Engineering is to advance the well-being of the nation by promoting a vibrant engineering profession and by marshalling the expertise and insights of eminent engineers to provide independent advice to the federal government on matters involving engineering and technology.

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